Review: Make Way for the Spirit

Make Way for the Spirit

Make Way for the SpiritChristoph Friedrich Blumhardt (edited by Wolfgang J. Bittner, translated by Ruth Rhenius, Simeon Zahl, Miriam Mathis, and Christian T. Collins Winn. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2019.

Summary: A reflection on the ministry of Johann Christoph Blumhardt by his son, identifying both the continuity, and divergence of their convictions.

Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt had to fill large shoes. His father Johann Christoph Blumhardt had been at the center of a great awakening around the village of Mottlingen, and a later ministry at Bad Boll, that Christoph took over at his father’s death. It began with the deliverance of a young woman from demonic powers and resulted in the repentance of many villagers, especially from occult practices as well as other sins, and the introduction by Johann of granting absolution, which had a profound effect. Johann weathered critical scrutiny and criticism by church authorities, walking a delicate boundary of exercising a Spirit-directed and empowered ministry while submitting to church strictures. Another Plough publication, The Awakening (reviewed here), describes that ministry, with its rallying cry, “Jesus is victor!” in much greater detail.

One of the underlying ideas of this book is the forward moving work of the Spirit of God throughout history. The problem, as Blumhardt, the son, sees it, is that people often do not won’t to go on with the Spirit. Instead of an empowered, apostolic church defeating the powers of darkness, the church substituted structures and creeds and institutional power while remaining Christian in name.

What happened at Mottlingen illustrated both. There was a resolute struggle against the dark powers, and real breakthroughs in the advance of the kingdom in the lives of the people of Mottlingen. Yet according to Johann Blumhardt, ultimately people sought spiritual and physical healing apart from completely giving themselves to the cause of God. They sought their own comfort rather than the kingdom and righteousness of God,

While Johann admires much in his father’s life, particularly his steadfast obedience to the Lord’s leading, he faults him for being too eager to please both the people who came to him, and the church authorities, when for the sake of the ministry of the Spirit, they should have been resisted. He also describes three hopes his father entertained, that he affirms, and three false staffs that led to the disappointment of those hopes in his father’s time:

  1. The hope of a new and continuing outpouring of the Spirit. The false staff was the visible church, whose structures were not able to receive the outpoured Spirit.
  2. The hope for God’s Zion, a “city” to which the nations would stream. The false staff was mission that spread the gospel without building up Zion.
  3. The hope for the defeat of death on earth and the false staff was personal salvation and a hope of heavenly bliss that saw death as a pathway rather than the last enemy.

This last was something I had serious questions about, even though I appreciated the emphasis on a ministry of life focused on bodily resurrection. He rightly points to ways we too easily give way to death in both our physical and mental dispositions. And certainly in our own day, we witness a culture of death about which many Christians are relatively complacent. But if I’m reading Blumhardt right, it seems he believed the defeat of death on earth, without mention of the return of Christ and the resurrection, a real possibility, albeit one thwarted by wrong belief. Blumhardt’s references are somewhat allusive, and this was one point where I wish I could have asked him to tell me more, because it seems what he proposes is unorthodox at this point.

Some of the most challenging parts of this book have to do with the issue of progressing so far and then stopping, settling rather than continuing to make way for the Spirit. Connected to this is an embrace of comfort rather than a passion for the rule of God being extended, what he refers to as Zion. There is also some insightful observations about the link between physical and spiritual healing and how this should be approached in pastoral care.

What Blumhart does in his reflection on his father’s ministry, and the Spirit’s bidding for his own work, is explore the question of why awakening or revival does not continue to flourish and grow. He explores both the inner and outer dynamics that have an impact. The editing and compiling of Blumhardt’s papers into this volume (one of the reasons it may seem repetitive at points) is a gift to those who both study and seek revival. Along with scholars from Jonathan Edwards to Richard Lovelace, this study offers rich resources for those who seek to prepare both themselves and the people of God for such awakening work.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Into His Presence

into his presence

Into His PresenceTim L. Anderson. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2019.

Summary: Offers a biblical study of the idea of intimacy with God, and engages with Catholic mystical, Pentecostal experiential, and Evangelical devotional approaches to intimacy with God.

Tim L. Anderson contends that scripture assures us that God both longs to draw near to us and for us to draw near to Him. He writes this book to uncover the wealth of material in scripture that both assures us of this truth and explains how this can be a reality in the life of the believer. He writes that he is also seeking “an intervention of sorts.” He believes there are three approaches to intimacy with God that suffer from theological imprecision and thus will fail to lead believers into the fullness of intimacy with God that is promised the believer. He describers these approaches as Catholic Mystical, Pentecostal Experiential, and Evangelical Devotional.

He begins with defining intimacy, which he proposes is “the movement of God and Christians toward a place of true knowledge and close contact.” He believes this consists in four elements: movement toward intimacy, intimate knowledge, intimate place/location, and intimate contact/touch, elaborating each of these from scripture. Chapter 2 looks at the place of intimacy with God in theology and philosophy, beginning with the God who is source of our existence, consciousness, and delights, thus making knowledge of God both our gift and our responsibility, pursued through God’s self-revelation in scripture, showing us a God both immanent and transcendent, all-present and knowing, and yet condescending to us.

Chapter 3 considers the fall and the barriers to intimacy this raises. Chapter 4, then, explores the beautiful symbols of scripture that convey God’s communication of intimacy, especially the anthropomorphisms of face, ears, hands, voice and mouth, and how we are to understand these.

Chapter 5 then elaborates the particular image of God as Father and how a proper understanding of God as an intimate. loving Father heals unhealthy shame that hinders our approach to God. Chapter 6 looks at Christ through the lens of the marriage images in scripture. Here he focuses on the intimate care and faithfulness of Christ and the church, but sets bounds on some of the highly romanticized or even sexualized applications of this imagery. Chapter 7 turns to the Holy Spirit and how he discloses truth in illuminating scripture and intercedes for us in prayer.

Chapter 8 deals with suffering and the apparent hiddenness of God in times of suffering. He shows from scripture how God knows us in our suffering and provides in himself a place of security as we suffer. He underscores this with the stories of the suffering of Moses and Elijah, and ultimately of Christ.

Finally, chapter 9 applies all this material on intimacy to assessing our songs of intimacy, our worship music, past and present, particularly for how the four elements of intimacy are present in them. I loved his treatment of “Just as I Am,” a song deeply etched in my own life from Billy Graham Crusades and other contexts.

I greatly appreciated the emphasis of setting forth the rich biblical testimony for intimacy that grounds intimacy in the promises, works, and commands of God and not in our experience. His critique of the “Jesus is my boyfriend or lover” kind of spirituality is a much needed corrective. I felt that the approaches of Catholic Mystical, Pentecostal Experiential, and Evangelical Devotional were treated somewhat as straw men against which he took a few whacks while focusing more on elaborating a biblical theology of intimacy, and critiquing some examples of unhelpful teaching. I thought the book might have been stronger had he left the straw men out while focusing on his primary aim of a theology of intimacy, while offering helpful correctives to specific examples of inadequate or even false teaching, which I felt did not represent the best of the three approaches.

Because of the lack of good biblical/theological instruction in many of our Christian communities, many believers do not know what is theirs in Christ. As human beings, we long for intimacy. Anderson’s work assures us that God’s longing for intimacy with us more than matches our longing for Him, and in Christ the bridegroom, and the Spirit who discloses his bidding and intercedes for us, He has made that intimacy possible.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Placemaking and the Arts

placemaking

Placemaking and the Arts, Jennifer Allen Craft. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Considers the “place” of the arts in placemaking, particularly in the settings of the home, the church, and the wider society.

Urbanists like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte have pioneered a movement known as “placemaking,” the gist of which is the planning and design of urban spaces that promote the health and well-being of those who live in them. This movement has also included writers of “place” like Wendell Berry who urge loving attention to local places, their people, and their ecology.

In this work, Jennifer Allen Craft explores the role of the arts, particularly the visual arts, in placemaking, and how for the Christian in the arts, artists may both seek the flourishing of their places, and anticipate the coming of the new creation, the kingdom of God.

Her first chapter explores the “placed” character of art. Every artist works in a place. Art is an embodied practice that can only occur in a place and in various ways interacts with that place. Through all this runs a theology of creation, incarnation, and resurrection hope for the new creation. One’s art is integrally connected to one’s relationship with God, other people and creatures, and the place in which we work.

The next four chapters explore how this works out in different settings: the natural world, the home, the church, and in society. In the natural world, art enables us to understand, love and, in the words of Wendell Berry, “practice resurrection” in the creation. Art in the home is a “homemaking” practice that creates beautiful spaces that also may become hospitable places for those experiencing dis-placement. Art in the church creates a welcome “place” for community, for encountering God, and for “embodying” the spiritual in a local place, as does liturgy and the Eucharist. The arts also have an important role in the pursuit of human flourishing in society, in creating “place” for the displaced, and bringing artistic considerations to the design of places.

Her final chapter is an attempt to articulate a placed theology of the arts. This commences with six key dialectic features of art: physicality/spirituality; particularity/universality; individuality/community; given/made; beauty/usefulness; contemplation/action. It seems that part of the theological ground of this dialectic approach is the sense of already/not yet of the kingdom and the dialectic of reflection and action in spiritual practices of faith.

The author seems to primarily be writing for an academic audience at the intersection of theological studies, sociology, and art theory, an important group to engage. I found myself wondering how accessible this would be to most of the practicing artists I know, many who might be appreciative. Many are believing people but unaccustomed to reading academic prose and would struggle to read a book like this, or they would just put it down and paint.

At the same time, as an individual who participates in a local arts group and a local choral organization, this resonated deeply with me. Joining a group of plein air painters in various locations in our “place” helps me see and cherish that place more deeply–the particular light of our summer skies, the gently rolling landscape, the river valleys, the species of trees and the shades of green of each. Whether it is a local park or town square, these become intimately a part of the place where we live as we seek to render them on canvas. To study and rehearse great works of music, and then to perform them in an assembled community in our place brings these works to a particular life that enhances life. The works we and others have painted that adorn our home make it a distinctive and welcome place. Singing four-part acapella harmonies with a few friends in my church embodies community and invites worship in our local place.

What this work offers is a theological framework for thinking about both the embodied practice of making art in local places, and how faithful engagement in the arts may be a part of our kingdom callings. I hope she will think about how to articulate these ideas to a wider art and craftwork community, many whose work is indeed grounded in place, and could use the encouragement and affirmation of their work present in this book.

Guest Review: Finding Ourselves After Darwin

Findng Ourselves After Darwin

Finding Ourselves After DarwinStanley P. Rosenberg ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Summary: This book presents and discusses multiple approaches to thinking about the image of God, original sin, and the problem of evil in light of biological evolution.

This collection of essays is one result of a research project at Oxford University which “assembled scholarship presenting different approaches and methods and insights, introducing a variety of models that may be considered . . .” (p. 8). The individual authors are primarily theologians and biblical scholars, some with a science background.

As the title implies, biological evolution is presupposed, and the issue is how to think about the image of God, original sin, and the problem of evil in the light of biological evolution. The book is divided into three parts, one for each topic. Each part includes a brief introduction, a discussion of the questions, challenges, and concerns for the topic, several essays offering different approaches, and a conclusion and further reading list.

Part 1 deals with why the image of God is important in the theology-evolutionary science dialogue. It begins with a discussion of what constitutes human distinctiveness. After four essays offering different views of the image of God in the light of recent developments in evolutionary science, Michael Burdett concludes by suggesting that “it is entirely possible that each of these models could be combined in interesting ways such that hybrid models could be constructed that rely on aspects from each one outlined here.” (p. 109)

Part 2 deals with original sin. The opening essay by Gijsbert van den Brink suggests that biological evolution does not require a radical abandonment of the doctrine of original sin, but rather a recontextualization within an evolutionary framework. After essays on Augustinian, Irenaean, federal headship, and cultural approaches, Christopher M. Hays presents a compelling account of the ways in which evolutionary theory aids our understanding of the universality of sin without appealing to an Adamic fall. In his conclusion, Benno van den Toren suggests that “Insights from different theories might well be combined for a new theological synthesis to arise out of this fermentation process. (p. 206)

Part 3 deals with the problem of evil by presenting a variety of approaches. Essayists discuss Augustinian, Irenaeasn, fall-of-the-angels, free process, only way, and non-identity theodicy and how they relate to evolution. The concluding essay by Michael Lloyd suggests that, despite their differences, the contributors to this part seem to believe the following: (1) the current state of evolutionary biology and modern genetics leaves plenty of room in which to do theodicy, (2) the seriousness of the problem of evil in relation to the evolutionary processes, (3) this volume falls far short of a full theodical narrative, and (4) their positions still have challenges to face and work to do.

The three Further Reading lists, the 26-page Bibliography, and the numerous informative footnotes provide a wealth of opportunities to pursue specific topics of personal interest.

It would help to have some familiarity with the issues before tackling this book, but it does succeed in bringing together multiple approaches to dealing with the image of God, original sin, and the problem of evil in light of evolution. I can recommend it to anyone interested in this topic. Three other helpful essay collections on the same topic are “Perspectives on an Evolving Creation”, “Theology After Darwin,” and “Darwin, Creation and the Fall.”

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This guest review was contributed by Paul Bruggink, a retired technical specialist whose review interest is in the area of science and faith.

Review: Balm in Gilead

balm in gilead

Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, edited by Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of presentations from the 2018 Wheaton Theology Conference, discussing the work, and particularly the fiction, of Marilynne Robinson with contributions from Robinson.

It is not unusual at an academic conference to discuss the work of a particular author. What is perhaps more remarkable is to discuss the work of a living author with the author present and contributing. The subtitle of this work calls this “a theological dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, and this is true in two senses. The various essays do engage the theology, particularly the Calvinism of Robinson’s work. But the conference also engaged Robinson, with a presentation by her (“The Protestant Conscience”) and a conversation between her and Rowan Williams, and an interview with Wheaton College President Philip Ryken.

Most of the essays focus on some aspect of the theology found in Robinson’s work. Timothy Larsen considers the main character of her fiction, Reverend John Ames, his heritage as the grandson of a staunch abolitionist in the mold of Wheaton’s Jonathan Blanchard, his reaction against that as a pacifist, and the mindset of the 1950’s Christian Century which he and fellow minister Boughton regularly discussed. Han-luen Kantzer Komline explores Ames “heart condition,” both physical and spiritual, and his struggle to forgive and extend grace to Jack Boughton, the wayward child of his friend. Timothy George explores the unusual, for an academic and a writer, embrace of Calvinism by Robinson, with its doctrine of predestination, emphasizing grace and undercutting human presumption. George notes the central focus of Robinson on Christ and so does Keith L. Johnson in a discussion of Robinson’s metaphysics. Here he teases out Robinson’s understanding of the significance of the cross as the demonstration of the love of God for us rather than on its sacrificial character, a focus Robinson engages and differs with.

Lauren Winner focuses on the preaching of John Ames–the 67,500 pages and 2,250 sermons in the course of his pastorate in Gilead and his conclusion that “they mattered or they didn’t and that’s the end of it.” One of the most intriguing essays for me was that of Patricia Andujo on the African American experience in Robinson’s works. She explores how these works reflect the attitudes of mainline white churches in the 1950’s, a kind of passivity in the face of racism, even while raising the uncomfortable issue of Jack Boughton’s inter-racial marriage, and the lack of response when the town’s black church burns down and the congregation leaves.

Tiffany Eberle Kriner’s essay on “Space/Time/Doctrine” raises the intriguing idea of the influence of Robinson’s understanding of predestination, and the shifts backwards and forwards in time in her novels. Joel Sheesley, a midwestern artist, focuses on the landscape of Robinson’s novels. In the penultimate essay Rowan Williams explores the theme of the grace that is beyond human goodness. He writes:

“Grace, not goodness, is the key to our healing. To say that is to say that we’re healed in relation not only to God but to one another. Without that dimension, we’re back with toxic goodness again, the goodness that forgets and excludes. Lila’s problem in the novel is that the instinctive warmth, the human friendliness, the humanly constructed fellowship that characterizes Gilead cannot allow itself to be wounded and broken open in such a way that the stranger is welcome, whether that stranger is the racial other, or simply the socially marginal and damaged person like Lila herself. But to be wounded in our goodness, to learn to have that dimension of our self-image and self-presentation cracked open, is the beginning of where grace can act in us” (pp. 163-164).

The final essay is Robinson’s on “The Protestant Conscience,” in which she defends not only the freedom of conscience of religious believers but argues that the Protestant idea of conscience defended the freedom of all rather than enforcing a Christian conscience upon all through means of the state. This presentation is followed by conversations with Rowan Williams, and an interview with Philip Ryken. In this collection, I found these diverting, but not nearly as substantive and satisfying as the various essays. Perhaps a highlight was the difference between Robinson and Williams on the literary merits of Flannery O’Connor, of whom Robinson is no fan.

This is a great volume for any who, like me, love the work of Marilynne Robinson. It helped make greater sense of some of the themes I’ve seen in her work, particularly her Calvinism. It served to invite me to a re-reading of her work in its exploration of themes of place, race, and grace. Robinson’s presence by no means muted the critique of her work, and yet I saw no defensiveness in her comments, which bespeaks the evidence of grace in her life. All in all, this is well worth acquiring if you have followed Robinson’s work. For those who have not, read the novels first, and then you will appreciate this volume!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Guest Review: Enriching our Vision of Reality

Enriching Our Vision

Enriching our Vision of RealityAlister McGrath. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2017

Summary: The natural sciences and Christian theology can enrich each other’s understanding of reality and help us better understand this strange world in which we find ourselves.

The fundamental theme of Alister McGrath’s book is that “the natural sciences and Christian theology can enrich each other’s understanding of reality and help us better understand this strange world in which we find ourselves.” (p. 77)

His intended audience is “scientists with an interest in theology and theologians aware of the importance of the natural sciences” (p. viii), of which I happen to be neither.

McGrath suggests that “insisting that we use only scientific methods, forms and categories confines us to a narrow world that excludes meaning and value, not because these are absent but because this research method prevents them being seen.” (p. 16)

McGrath discusses the shortcomings of Ian Barbour’s four general approaches (conflict, independence, dialogue and integration) to the relation of science and religion, then goes on to favorably describe John Polkinghorne’s four approaches (deistic, theistic, revisionary, and developmental). The developmental approach is described as a continuously unfolding exploration wherein Christian doctrine is revised in the light of new insights.

He points out the numerous ways in which scientific and theological thinking are similar, particularly regarding Darwin’s theory and Christian theology, in that “both scientific and religious theories find themselves confronted with mysteries, puzzles and anomalies that may give rise to intellectual or existential tensions but do not require their abandonment. . . . In each case, there is a common structure of an explanation with anomalies, which are not regarded as endangering the theory by its proponents but are seen as puzzles that will be resolved at a later stage.” (pp. 147-8)

And it wouldn’t be an Alister McGrath book without a discussion of natural theology, which he describes as “an attempt to demonstrate the existence or character of God by an appeal to the order or beauty of the natural world, without presupposing or relying on any religious assumptions or beliefs.” (p. 165) McGrath suggests that “Christianity offers a framework that makes sense of what is otherwise a happy cosmic coincidence.” (p. 11)

In summary, McGrath provides an exploration of the relation of the natural sciences and theology and how they can complement each other. Along the way, McGrath responds to the views of some of the New Atheists, particularly Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

The book includes a two-page “For Further Reading” but no Index. The only fault I can find with this book is that the publisher chose to go with end notes (28 pages of them) instead of footnotes, thus requiring constant page-flipping.

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This guest review was contributed by Paul Bruggink, a retired technical specialist whose review interest is in the area of science and faith.

 

Review: None Greater

none greater

None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God, Matthew Barrett (Foreword by Fred Sanders). Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Drawing on classical and reformed theology, discusses the perfections of God, that set God apart from all else.

It seems a common tendency in Christian preaching, and even in our informal conversations, to try to “bring God down to our level.”  Christian Smith, in a study of the religious beliefs of American teens, coined a term to describe the God of many: “moral therapeutic deism.” In this system, there is a belief in a God who made the world, who wants us to be nice and fair, the purpose of life being to feel happy and good about oneself, God only gets involved in our lives when we need God, and that good people will go to heaven when they die. Such a God is nice, domesticated, and mostly irrelevant to our lives. God is like us, only a bit better and maybe more powerful.

The classical theologians like Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, and those in the Reformed tradition of the author thought quite differently. For them, God, as Anselm put it, is “someone than whom none greater can be perceived,” hence the title of this work. While God may have certain communicable attributes like love, that are evident in part in human beings, God’s incommunicable attributes are utterly unlike any other creature and set God apart as incomparably greater than human beings.

It was this God that Matthew Barrett discovered in college when he read Calvin’s Institutes, and the other theologians mentioned above, opening his eyes to the glory and majesty of God. His hope in this book is that through a study of God’s attributes, particularly those dealing with the incommunicable perfections of God, to sow the same sense of wonder in his readers, inviting them to give up their domesticated versions of God for the incomparably greater undomesticated God of scripture.

The first three chapters of the book lay groundwork. First he explores the incomprehensibility of God, that we may speak of attributes, but none of us may see or know God in God’s very essence. It is not that God in unknowable, because God makes God’s self known through God’s works. He discusses how we may speak of God in analogical language as revealed by God to us, and sometimes in anthropomorphic language of hands, eyes, even wings, none of which are true of God’s essence. Most of all, we must recognize that God is infinite in God’s perfections, and without limits–a staggering realization for finite and imperfect creatures.

The remainder of the book discusses the perfections of God:

  • God’s aseity or self-existence independent of all of creation.
  • God’s simplicity, that even when we speak of various attributes, these are not “parts” of God but compose a seamless whole.
  • God’s immutability, that God does not change, grow, improve, or diminish, which is a tremendous comfort.
  • God’s impassibility, that God does not experience emotional changes, both settled in his promise-keeping love, and holy wrath toward evil.
  • God’s eternity, that he is timeless and not exists in the eternal present.
  • God is omnipresent: not bounded by a body, infinitely present.
  • God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnisapient: all-powerful, all knowing and all-wise.
  • God is both holy and loving: the high and lifted up God Isaiah sees, who cleanses his mouth and takes his guilt away and lovingly commissions him.
  • A God who is jealous for his own glory, inviting us into a similar jealousy for the glory and reputation of God above all in our world.

I found this discussion far from the “sterility” often found in such treatments of the attributes of God. Barrett helps us understand how each attributes both feeds our worship of God and is of great consolation to the believer. For example, the aseity of God means that the gospel depends on a God who does not depend on us. He deals with questions that may arise, such as how we can speak of simplicity and yet believe in a triune God. He differentiates an immutable God from one who is rigidly immobile. He deals with the classic conundrum of God creating a rock so big he cannot lift.

His discussion of impassibility is particularly intriguing in taking on Jurgen Moltmann’s “suffering God.” Yes Christ in his humanity suffers, but God does not suffer, God redeems. God is not like the family suffering over a family member trapped in a fire, but rather the fireman who has the capability and compassion to enter the burning building, enduring the flames and the smoke, to rescue the loved one. I’m not sure I buy this, and it seems these ideas are framed in either/or terms, not admitting the possibility of both/and, or the possibility of a quality of suffering in the God of eternal love who from eternity both purposed creation and the redemptive work of Christ.

This is a highly readable contemporary rendering of classical theology. It has become popular to bash classical statements of theology. Often, what is being bashed are caricatures. Here is the real stuff, articulated clearly and winsomely. I didn’t agree at every point, but found myself again and again marveling at the greatness of God and challenged to consider the ways I’m tempted to domesticate God. That, I think, is what makes for good theological reading and may be found here.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Crucifixion

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.indd

The CrucifixionFleming Rutledge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017.

Summary: A study of the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus including the biblical motifs that have been used to express that meaning.

It is striking to consider how relatively few books in recent Christian publishing deeply explore the meaning of the death of Christ by crucifixion, particularly considering that the death and the resurrection are central to Christian proclamation. Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion goes a long way to remedying this deficit.

This is a large book, but I would encourage the prospective reader not to be daunted by the size. While rich in insight, it is also a model of clarity, among the very best theological books I have read, both worthy of the academy, and written for the people of God.

The book consists of two parts. The first considers the crucifixion, particularly the godless character of this brutal execution, and the critical importance of this horrible execution as primary to the Christian faith. Rutledge also deals in this part with the biblical understanding of justice as the setting right, or rectifying, of something that is radically wrong, and that this something is the radical power of Sin over humanity. She makes a case that Anselm’s version of “satisfaction” is actually closer to her idea of rectification than he is credited for.

The second part of the book (about 400 pages) explores eight biblical motifs of the crucifixion that, together, help us understand the meaning of the crucifixion and what God accomplished in Christ on the cross. Rutledge prefers the language of motif to the more common language of theory because she believes all of these work together, rather than at odds with each other, to convey the glorious significance of the work of Christ. The motifs are:

  • The Passover and the Exodus
  • The Blood Sacrifice
  • Ransom and Redemption
  • The Great Assize
  • The Apocalyptic War: Christus Victor
  • The Descent into Hell
  • The Substitution
  • Recapitulation

She would contend that these show two basic things that happen in the cross:

  1. God’s definitive action in making vicarious atonement for sin.
  2. God’s decisive victory over the alien Powers of Sin and Death.

There are several things about her treatment of these motifs that are quite wonderful. One is that she reintroduces into theological conversation terms we are often averse to speak of: blood, ransom, judgment, hell, and substitution among others. Two is that she helps us see through these terms both the gravity of the human condition and how Christ truly has paid what we could not and triumphed over sin and evil, breaking their power and hold on humanity. These terms tell us essentially that we are worse off than we thought, and that is good news because God has done what we could not. Finally, she retrieves the language of substitution from the disparagement that it has become popular to pile upon it, while acknowledging the problems in some formulations. She beautifully unites the idea of Christ’s substitutionary death for us and Christ’s victory of the power of Sin, Evil, and Death (she capitalizes these terms reflecting the idea of these as powers). Instead of opposing these two ideas, she sees substitution as the basis of the victory of Jesus. I also found her treatment of Christus Victor as far more compelling than Aulen, in her linkage of this idea with the apocalyptic war.

The conclusion of the work returns to the beginning and amplifies these themes with the motifs she has developed. She emphasizes again the uniqueness of Christianity as the account of the Son of God who not only dies to redeem, but does so facing utter contempt and horrible suffering. And she emphasizes that this work makes right what was wrong. What she does in this conclusion is draw out the implications of these ideas. All the distinctions humans make are muted in the face of this work. All of us are in the same predicament, and this work of Christ addresses the wrongs in all of us, banal or horrid, and sets things right. This is not “God loves you just as you are” as we blithely love to say. The gruesomeness of the death of Christ reflected the cost to God necessary to set things to rights in breaking sin’s curse and power, and the horror reflects the power of this act to address the condition of even those who have done the most horrid.

What she is saying is that it is all of grace, all of God. In summary, she writes:

“Forgiveness is not enough. Belief in redemption is not enough. Wishful thinking about the intrinsic goodness of every human being is not enough. Inclusion is not a sufficiently inclusive message, nor does it deliver real justice. There are some things–many things–that must be condemned and set right if we are to proclaim a God of both justice and mercy. Only a Power independent of this world order can overcome the grip of the Enemy of God’s purposes for his creation” (p. 610).

This is what the crucifixion accomplished. Not only are individuals justified (or rectified) through this work, but all the injustices of the world are atoned for, and the process of setting these right has begun. Both the preaching of justification by grace, and the preaching of the restoration of justice find their warrant in the cross and are not at odds.

Rutledge does not come out and say this, but an implication of her “inclusiveness” is the possibility of the ultimate “rectification” even of those who have resisted the proclamation of rectification, as in her treatment of the Jews in Romans 9-11. Elsewhere she speaks of the final annihilation of Satan and those given over to him, but here she speaks of Christ’s death as an outcast as redeeming even those on the outside. She admits (p. 459, note) to struggling with Matthew 25:46 and Jesus’s own statement about eternal punishment. Perhaps this restrains her, as it does me, from asserting a final universal “rectification” of all people, but she comes very close. What is clear is that, for her, this arises from her expansive understanding both of the utter helplessness of all of us to save ourselves, without distinction, and the utter greatness of God to save through the cross of Christ. Perhaps in the end, this is a call to humility, of leaving these matters in God’s hand, and never presuming upon but utterly trusting in the grace of this God.

Without question, this was perhaps the most profound theological work I’ve read in at least the last five years. It made me look again at the uniqueness of Christ and his work on the cross. It made me think deeply not only of why Jesus died, but why he did so in such a horrid way. It made me think, and question, the ways I’ve formulated my understanding of the work of the cross and particularly challenged me to think more about the victory of Christ on the cross over the power of Sin, as well as his atonement for the guilt of sin. This was a marvelous work to read in this season of Lent.

In addition to this review, I’ve written three reflections on portions of this work that may be accessed at:

https://bobonbooks.com/2019/03/22/reading-reflections-the-crucifixion-part-one/

https://bobonbooks.com/2019/03/27/reading-reflections-the-crucifixion-part-two-a/

https://bobonbooks.com/2019/04/04/reading-reflections-the-crucifixion-part-two-b/

 

Reading Reflections: The Crucifixion: Part Two-B

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWell, I’ve finished The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge. I will be doing a full review of the book tomorrow, but for today, want to capture and share some of my reflections on the last third of the book, leaving discussion of the Conclusion to my review tomorrow.

The last third of the book is a continuation of Rutledge’s discussion of motifs of the crucifixion and focuses on just three of these: the descent into hell, substitution, and recapitulation, with discussions of the first two lengthy enough that she provided an outline at the beginning of each chapter. I will share a few reflections from each.

The descent into hell. It was fascinating that she would embark on such a lengthy discussion of a motif found in but a handful of verses. For Rutledge this serves as the pretext to explore not only the idea of “hell” in scripture and the development of the doctrine throughout church history. Her aim is to take a hard look at the reality of and problem of evil, and how Christ’s death and resurrection have cosmic implications that prefigure the final destruction of the power of Sin, Evil, Death, and Satan and his domain, where the nothingness of these will finally be confirmed in their utter annihilation. Perhaps most striking for me is her assertion that we cannot speak of meaning when it comes to evil, that it is the negation of meaning. Her discussion of the radical nature of evil, that runs through every life sets up her discussion of what she might call Christ’s substitutionary victory (she so closely links these). It gives the lie to any human distinctions of righteous and wicked, and the folly of human pretensions to innocence. She writes: “The unalloyed proclamation of Scripture is that the death and resurrection of Christ is the hinge of history. It is the unique old-world-overturning and new-world-constituting event that calls every human project into question–including especially our religious projects” (p. 461).

The Substitution. This is a marvelous chapter that everyone who derides the idea of substitution should read. Rutledge traces this history of the motif, not going to classic proof texts like 2 Corinthians 5:19-21 but to Romans, to Galatians 3:10-14, and Isaiah 53 and its use in the New Testament. She explores how Christ’s death is both for us and in our place. She surveys the development of the motif in history and the objections that are raised, which often reflect formulations that are problematic, but are not ultimately the underlying reason for rejection of substitution, which she argues reflects our aversion to substitution’s “recognition of the rule of Sin and God’s judgement on it” (p. 506). She turns to Barth and the idea of “The Judge Judged in Our Place” and the idea that the Godhead is the acting subject of substitution, the agent accomplishing this in God’s self to undo the curse of Sin. What is striking in Rutledge is how she develops in all of this an understanding of substitution, not in opposition to the idea of Christus Victor, but as the means of the victory of Jesus, uniting these two motifs in a splendid display of the glory of God.

Recapitulation. This follows from substitution, in tracing the idea that Christ is the second Adam; that his incarnation, baptism, obedience of faith in the power of the Spirit, death, and victory over death recapitulate in a transformative way, the life of Adam, as Christ represents all of humanity as Adam did, but for our redemption. I love her conclusion here:

“This is what Jesus did. He rewrote the book of love. We are the ‘ugly people’ who put Jesus on the cross, but he is going to give us all his riches nevertheless….Because he has rewritten the story, we are no longer prisoners of our worst selves, nor of the evil powers that would destroy us. At any moment of our lives, God may break through with yet another miracle of rewriting. And laughter will resound from the farthest reaches of the created universe: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Phil. 4:4)” (p. 570).

What all three of these chapters underscore is that, as G. K. Chesterton has put it, we are what is wrong with the world, and utterly incapable of ourselves in setting things to rights, and that God, in Christ rectifies, or sets to right by sheer grace what we could never deserve or accomplish.

Reading Reflections: The Crucifixion: Part One

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I’ve taken a break from reviewing new books I’ve received from publishers for a short while to immerse myself in what may be the most significant theological book published in the last ten years. It was Christianity Today’s Book of the Year in 2017. I thought it appropriate in this season of Lent to finally dig into Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion“Dig in” is not inappropriate for this 612 page (plus bibliography and indices) study on the central event of Christianity. The work is made lighter by Rutledge’s elegant and accessible prose–this is a work of meaty theology meant for those in the pew and not merely the academy. It is such a rich book that I thought I would write several reflections in addition to my usual review to capture, at least for myself, something of the richness of this work. This is on the first two hundred pages, most of Part One of the book.

Right at the start, Rutledge contends for the primacy of the cross, and the challenge Christianity has always faced from various forms of gnosticism, and its devaluation of material life, including the very physical act of a crucifixion in history. In place of an action of the Triune God entering human history to make things right by a gory death, human beings prefer systems of attaining to hidden spiritual knowledge through human achievements, and the devaluation of the body. She notes that Christians have even drawn back, sometimes accepting narratives of the cross as divine child abuse, which she will contend reflects neither the shared will and agreement of the Trinity in the act of the cross, nor the object of the cross, making things right for those under the power of Sin.

She made a statement stunning in its clarity in her chapter on “The Godlessness of the Cross.” She writes in response to those who would ban the cross as a religious object that “[t]he cross is by a very long way the most irreligious object to find its way into the heart of faith.” She then explores at length the horror of the cross as an instrument of torture, degradation, and execution for the dregs of criminal society. the significance of the idea of those who die on a cross being under the curse, and explores the question of why God would choose such a horrific form of death to accomplish God’s redemptive purposes in the world. I’ve often asked the question “why did Jesus die?” What this book is challenging me with is the question of why did Jesus die in this particularly gruesome and horrific fashion?

She begins to explore a response to this in discussing the idea of justice. She notes that “[g]ross injustice demonstrates a basic premise: in our world, something is terribly wrong and cries out to be put right.” She uses the example of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to show that “putting things right” involves something far different from the “forgive and forget” idea we sometimes think of in God’s work through Christ. It involves accountable truthfulness about atrocities, both confessing wrongs and hearing from one’s victims. Yet the object isn’t punishment, which can never be proportional to the offenses, but a new creation. She goes on to explore the biblical word group connected to dikaiosyne, variously translated as “justice,” “righteous,” “righteousness,” and “justification.” She contends that the underlying idea is one of God making things right and suggests that “rectify” in its various forms may be a better English word and uses this in the remainder of the book. She argues that the cross is an apocalyptic event–a divine intervention that makes right what could not be made right by human law-keeping.

One of the striking emphases here that I sense will run through the work is the gracious initiative of God. Later, in a chapter on “The Gravity of Sin” (a topic she admits we have a hard time talking about) she contends “[t]here is no way to help people to the knowledge of sin except to offer the news of God’s ‘prevenient’ purpose in overcoming sin through the cross.” Countering our tendency  to put repentance first, she argues for an order of “grace-sin-deliverance-repentance-grace.” It is in grasping the grace of God revealed in the cross that we understand the enormity of our sin. It is understanding the mighty work of the cross in delivering us from the power of sin that we are moved to repentance and realize the sheer pardon into new life we enjoy by grace.

This chapter also develops an idea she has hinted at, of capital S Sin. We often think of particular acts. She develops the idea of Sin as a Power, a principle of rebellion that holds people captive, that there is a power of darkness over the human heart in all of us that helps explain the horrors of what humans do to each other. And it begins to explain why the Triune God chose the instrumentality of the cross to deliver us from this horrid power. This is hard stuff. It strikes me that this helps explain our obsession with explaining why people commit mass shootings and other atrocities. We look for some “reason,” perhaps because we do not want to face the reality of the reason-defying logic of human evil, and the scary possibility that it is not so far from any of us. Yet there is also the wonder that in the Cross, God, in the innocent Son, becomes the object of human evil to set to rights what was terribly wrong in us that we could not self-rectify.

One other aspect of this work, in a “bridge” chapter on Anselm, is that she argues that Anselm has been misunderstood as a proponent of penal suffering. She argues that his idea of “satisfaction” is much closer to what she is proposing as “rectification.” It makes me want to go back and read Cur Deus Homo to see if her reading of Anselm can be supported. In the second part of the book she will go on to discuss eight “motifs” for understanding the crucifixion, including substitution. Given her comments on Anselm, and her sensitivities to the accusations against penal substitution, as well as her defense of the death of Christ as a work of love in which the Triune God acted as one, I am curious how she will weight these different “motifs” (she disdains the terminology of “theories of the atonement”) and what she will conclude. Already, it is clear that for her, this will all point to the idea of rectification, of God putting right what was wrong through Christ.

I don’t know whether I will agree with all that Rutledge writes, but this work forces me to look with fresh eyes at what easily becomes too familiar. She helps us to face the skandalon of the cross lost in our back-lit crosses and eye-catching PowerPoints. She confronts us both with things about human nature that are uncomfortable, and the relentless determination of God to address what is terribly wrong with the world and put it right, which is quite wonderful.